The rock fusion band Ollin performs at the opening of the “From Brooklyn Ave to Cesar Chavez” exhibition at Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights. Photos by David Wu

Boyle Heights’ Jewish history celebrated with exhibition in the neighborhood


In the predominantly Latino, Christian neighborhood of Boyle Heights today, the Breed Street Shul normally is a lonely sight, empty and locked away behind a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. The onetime Jewish community emigrated west decades ago.

But on June 4, a small gaggle chatted out front and klezmer music drifted into the street. Blue and yellow balloons floating at the imposing brick facade helped announce the opening of a UCLA exhibition bringing to life once more the neighborhood’s Jewish past.

For some who attended the shul when it still functioned, the event served as a homecoming of sorts.

“This is really weird, that people are interested in the Breed Street Shul again — it’s great,” said Vicky Esquenazi Bharier, whose family moved to the neighborhood in the early 1960s from Cuba.

The exhibition marks a temporary return of Jewish life to the East Los Angeles neighborhood that, in the 1930s, was the focal point of the city’s Jewry. Innumerable bar mitzvahs, weddings and funeral services took place in the Breed Street Shul and the synagogues that dotted the area. But as the European immigrants who made up the majority of the community began to establish themselves and become wealthier, they moved west.

Today, the neighborhood is more than 80 percent Mexican. But the decades of Jewish presence in Boyle Heights left an impact on the minds and hearts of its onetime residents, and the exhibition aims to bring those memories into focus.

“From Brooklyn Ave to Cesar Chavez: Jewish Histories in Multiethnic Boyle Heights” will run through Aug. 31 in the synagogue (breedstreetshul.org), which is in the process of restoration. The exhibition’s name is a play on the area’s main drag, steps away from the synagogue — Avenida Cesar Chavez, whose name changed from Brooklyn Avenue in 1994.

While the exhibition opened at UCLA’s Royce Hall in November 2016, the June 4 opening marked the first time it was available to the public in the neighborhood it celebrates. Laid out on top of an enlarged historic map of the neighborhood, the exhibition includes not only timelines and informational placards but also class photographs and personal artifacts, such as a jersey from a local boys club, the Jasons.

“The exhibit really springs from the community,” Todd Presner, director of the UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies, which hosts the exhibition, said at the opening.

The display draws on artifacts from the Hinda and Jacob Schonfeld Boyle Heights Collection at UCLA, which Presner said aims “to collect materials, memories, scrapbooks, photographs, letters — anything that you have that really documents the vitality and history of the neighborhood.”

For the visitors who grew up in the neighborhood, the exhibition’s content wasn’t history, but living memory. For instance, one of the displays showed the onetime Jewish Community Center on Michigan Avenue and Soto Street. Arlene Feingold, 83, who attended the opening, recalled playing Beethoven’s “Für Elise” at the community center during a piano recital when she was a child.

Alan D. Leve, the donor for whom the Jewish studies center is named, also attended the opening. His childhood took place largely between St. Louis Street and Soto Street along Brooklyn Avenue, he said.

“That was my world,” he told the Journal in an earlier interview. “And I just remember it was a bustling community.”

“That’s our great thrill as historians: When you give people something to connect to, to relate to, that they can see themselves reflected in,” said Caroline Luce, a research and digital projects manager at the Jewish studies center and one of the main architects of the exhibition.

The venue itself is a reflection of the neighborhood’s Jewish history. A clapboard structure set behind the brick building that houses the main sanctuary, it is the older — if less impressive — of the two buildings that make up the historic site, built in 1915. The larger and grander main sanctuary building, dating to 1923, remains under construction, closed for now, pending seismic retrofits.

Back in its heyday, the clapboard building that houses the exhibition used to host three morning prayer groups, with the earliest, the Bakers’ Minyan, starting around 4 a.m. to accommodate the bakers’ early schedules, according to Stephen Sass, president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California.

By the 1990s, the shul was in dire need of rehabilitation. Rival gangs had claimed it as their territory, and it served as a shelter for prostitutes and drug dealers, Sass said. Two decades and millions of dollars in renovations later, the building now serves intermittently as event space for local groups and the occasional bar mitzvah.

“It’s gone through a lot of work so that you’re able to be here,” Sass told the crowd that gathered for the exhibition opening. “I’m the most proud, I think, not just of this beautiful mural which surrounds the holy ark, the Aron Kodesh, but of the fact that we have working restrooms.”

The event aimed to showcase not just Jewish narratives in Boyle Heights, but also the histories of the other communities that coexisted there. In 1930, records show that people from 40 nationalities lived in the neighborhood, according to Luce.

“Jewish history is always in contact with other histories,” Presner said.

Hence, the exhibition featured not just the Mt. Sinai Home for Incurables and The Workmen’s Circle, but also the Southern California Japanese Hospital and the United Farm Workers.

The event also featured musical performances varying across time and culture, including the UCLA Klezmer Ensemble as well as the local rock fusion band Ollin.

“We watched the neighborhood change from Brooklyn Avenue to Chavez,” said Scott Rodarte, the front man for Ollin. “We’ve been around. History is never kind to this neighborhood, so we’re proud that light has been shed on its faith.”

But it was the klezmer performance that captured the event’s major theme.

As the klezmer band played, Sass walked to the center of the room and offered Luce a handkerchief. She took it and they began to dance, the handkerchief connecting them, feet stamping as the crowd watched and clapped to the beat. If only for the moment, Jewish life had returned to Boyle Heights.

“From Brooklyn Ave to Cesar Chavez: Jewish Histories in Multiethnic Boyle Heights” is open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays, and on Sundays by appointment. For more information, visit this story at jewishjournal.com. 

Beloved N.Y. Jewish coffee shop to close


Another old-school New York Jewish institution is about to fall victim to gentrification.

The New York Times reports that Cafe Edison, a modest Theater District coffee shop long favored by Broadway’s cognoscenti, has been asked to leave by the owner of the hotel in which it is located.

While not kosher, Cafe Edison serves deli sandwiches and traditional Ashkenazi Jewish fare, like blintzes and matzah ball soup, and was founded by Polish-born Holocaust survivors, Harry and Frances Edelstein.

It’s also the inspiration for the setting in Neil Simon’s play, “45 Seconds From Broadway.”

Simon reportedly enjoyed frequent meals there with his producer Emanuel Azenberg. Other regular patrons included comedian Jackie Mason, actor Henry Winkler and the late African American playwright August Wilson.

Mimi Sheraton, a former Times restaurant critic who has published books about bialies and chicken soup, among other topics, features Cafe Edison in her forthcoming “1,000 Places to Eat Before You Die.”

For more on Cafe Edison and its founders, check out this 2012 article from our friends at the New York Jewish Week.

Can Pasadena become a ‘city of justice?’


I sometimes wonder what the Prophet Isaiah would think about Pasadena.

It was Isaiah whose words we just read this past Yom Kippur.

God, speaking through Isaiah, says, “Do you think the fast that I demand this day is to bow down your head like a bulrush? No! The fast I demand is that you feed the poor, house the homeless, clothe the naked, and break off the handcuffs on your prisoners.”

In other words, it is not enough to feel guilty and ask for forgiveness. It is not enough to mouth platitudes about fairness, compassion and justice. We have to act on those beliefs.

We are a world-class city, well known for the Rose Bowl, our cultural institutions, colleges and our science-oriented institutions like Cal Tech and JPL. What many people don’t realize is that Pasadena, with 146,000 people, is also a city with many problems — poverty, violent crime, racial tensions and widening inequality.

Pasadena is proud of its history and has a strong commitment to preserve its older buildings. But I’m not sure it has the same commitment to protect its older citizens, or to provide for its young children, or to help lift its working poor out of poverty.

We like to think of ourselves as a compassionate city that cares about its needy. But are we really?

What would it mean for Pasadena to be a “city of justice”?

There are five pillars that comprise a city of justice:

1) A city with a strong economy that fulfills the American dream of fair wages and benefits in return for hard work.

2) A city that provides decent housing for a wide mix of families from different income groups and diverse racial and cultural backgrounds.

3) A city with a first-class, well-funded school system that guarantees every student an opportunity to fulfill his or her potential.

4) A healthy city, where people can breathe clean air, where everyone, especially children, has access to health care and where people feel safe in their homes and safe in the streets.

5) A city with a strong sense of community, where people participate actively in their civic, neighborhood and religious institutions; where they feel their voices are heard by the political decision makers; and where people feel part of something bigger than themselves — something transcendent, even spiritual.

How close is Pasadena to becoming a real city of justice?

Pasadena is the most unequal city in California. The income of households near the top ($255,106) is 12 times greater than the income of those near the bottom ($21,277). This is the widest gap among the 36 California cities with more than 140,000 people.

In Pasadena, the wealthiest 5 percent of all households — those with household incomes above $255,106 — have over one-quarter (25.1 percent) of the all the income in the city. Among California’s 36 largest cities, only Los Angeles has a greater concentration of income among the richest households (26.1 percent).

In contrast, the poorest one-fifth of Pasadena households — those with incomes below $21,277 — combined have only 2.8 percent of total residents’ income. Those in the next poorest one-fifth — with household incomes between $21,277 and $46,375 — bring home only 7.6 percent of Pasadena’s incomes. Only in San Francisco and Oakland do the poor have a smaller share of the income.

Pasadena is thus a tale of two cities. Gentrification is exacerbating the gap between rich and poor.

Between 2005 and 2006, Pasadena’s median household income increased from $51,233 in 2005 to $59,301 in 2006 — a dramatic 15.7 percent boost in just one year. This jump in income is not because Pasadena’s existing residents got big pay raises from generous employers. It is because the people moving to Pasadena are increasingly those with high incomes, while those with low incomes are being pushed out of the city.

In other words, the city’s prosperity is not being widely shared, but is instead pitting the affluent against the poor and working class for the city’s scarce housing.

Since 1999, the number of households under $10,000 has declined by 30 percent. The number of households with incomes over $200,000 has increased by 54 percent.

Moreover, gentrification is not simply a matter of market forces. It is a matter of the city’s public policy. Almost all the housing that our city government has been approving is expensive luxury condos and apartments.

This has been exacerbated by the accelerating number of affordable apartments being converted to expensive condominiums or being torn down by city-approved demolition. Condo conversions don’t add any new units. They simply make the existing units more expensive, feed gentrification and push out the poor.

More than half (54 percent) of Pasadena’s population are renters. Half of them pay more than 30 percent of their incomes for rent. Among low-income renters, the situation is even more serious. Among the 7,684 households with incomes below $20,000, almost all — 89 percent — pay more than 30 percent of household income for rent.

But the shortage of affordable housing isn’t confined to the poorest households. Among households with incomes between $20,000 and $35,000, 78.3 percent pay more than 30 percent of household income for rent.

Gentrification may be good for a handful of developers, but it isn’t good for most residents or for the city’s business climate. Pasadena housing costs are skyrocketing beyond what most working families — including schoolteachers, nurses and nurses’ aides, bus drivers, security guards, secretaries, janitors, child care providers, retail clerks, computer programmers, lab assistants and others — can afford.

When working families spend almost half their incomes for rent or mortgages, they have little left over to spend in the Pasadena economy, hurting local businesses. Moreover, local employers are having difficulty finding employees who live in the city. Long commutes into Pasadena exacerbate traffic congestion and pollution.

This is a major reason for the decline in enrollment in Pasadena Unified School District (PUSD) schools. PUSD’s declining enrollment and budget problems are due in large part to the displacement of the poor, not the flight of the middle class.

It’s the Swan Song for Hatikvah Music


On a recent afternoon, boxes were scattered around the floor of Hatikvah Music International on Fairfax Avenue. Stacks of CDs, piles of mailing envelopes and piles of boxes to be mailed threatened the barely discernible order of the store. Aside from owner Simon Rutberg and his visitor, the store was empty.

You’d never know that this is the world’s largest outlet for musical Judaica, because it looks like moving day. And come January, it will be moving day for real, when Rutberg is forced to give up the Fairfax Avenue store that has been a landmark for Jewish music lovers for decades.

Fairfax is changing, and to many long-time business owners and visitors, not for the better. Gentrification has been threatening the street for some time. Hatikvah isn’t the only store on the block to feel the heat, but fans are already concerned about the store’s demise.

“For me, that [Fairfax] strip of the Borscht Belt was always defined as much by Hatikvah as Canter’s or Diamond’s Bakery,” broadcaster Rene Engel (KCRW-FM, KUSC-FM, KCSN-FM) told The Journal. “It was the only music store my mother ever shopped at, and that was my link to the music she grew up with. It was also the only place to go for Israeli music. I can’t imagine Fairfax without Hatikvah.”

Neither can KCRW general manager Ruth Seymour, who builds her annual “Philosophers, Fiddlers and Fools” radio show around what Rutberg selects for her.

“I’m from New York,” she said, “the East Bronx, and I can tell you uncategorically that there’s nothing like Hatikvah [even] back there.”

Many viewed the store as a music archive.

“Universities came to me when they wanted rare field recordings,” Rutberg says. “Record companies like Columbia tell me that if I ever close, they’ll discontinue certain records because there will be no place to buy them.”

Rutberg finds a rare CD and holds it up for inspection: “Shba Hoth: Iraqui Jewish Songs from the 1920s.” Then there’s the album of Jewish music from the southern coast of India. “You can’t go anyplace else for this,” he says.

Although Rutberg will vacate the shop next month — with no current plans of how or where he will relocate — the store’s doors stand customarily open on this December afternoon, music wafting onto the sidewalk. Even louder are the persistent clacking noises from across the street: A group of boys practice skateboard maneuvers outside a store selling T-shirts that looks like a Melrose transplant — evidence of a transforming Fairfax.

Despite the racket, the compact, well-groomed Rutberg lowers his voice when asked about why he started Hatikvah back in 1987. He says he wanted to help save Yiddish, and specifically Yiddish music — part of a national trend that now includes institutions such as Yiddishkayt Los Angeles and the National Yiddish Book Center.

The long, narrow store — laid out like a shotgun shack — has a fascinating history. It opened in 1948 as Norty’s, Rutberg says. Some 50 yards from Fairfax High, it went on to sell music — both Jewish and pop — to generations of music-hungry kids, including Phil Spector and members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Jerry Leiber worked there as a teen, before he met Mike Stoller and they went on to write one of the largest and greatest catalogs of rock ‘n’ roll songs. When Herb Alpert played weddings and bar mitzvahs, he put his flyers there.

Steve Barri (nee Lipkin) also worked at Norty’s, and the store was his springboard to a job as an A & R man for Dunhill Records in 1963. Rutberg casually touches the counter as he notes, “Steve and Phil Spector wrote ‘Secret Agent Man’ right here.”

Rutberg discovered the place when his family moved to the area after emigrating from Poland in the 1950s. Norty’s became his neighborhood music store, and Rutberg even worked in the shop in the 1960s. Eventually he moved on to other pursuits — downtown retail clothing, a Westwood record store — before returning in 1987.

These days, some of the store’s biggest sellers are displayed near the cash register: “You Don’t Have to Be Jewish & When You’re in Love & The Whole World Is Jewish (Double Length)” and Mandy Patinkin’s “Mamaloshen.” Also on display are two CDs Rutberg released on his own Hatikvah Music label: “Leo Fuld Sings His Yiddish Hits” and Martha Schlamme’s “Yiddish Songs From My Father’s House.”

What’s this? “Connie Francis Sings Jewish Favorites”? A twinkle appears in Rutberg’s eye as he explains, “Continues to sell, year after year.”

On the wall behind the counter, a small shrine to Jackie Wilson? “Sure,” he affirms. “A great singer and a good friend of mine. You ever hear his record of ‘My Yiddishe Mama’?”

Just then a young blond woman walks into the store. Rutberg greets her, and they confer. While the proprietor disappears into the back of the building, she says she’s in the process of converting to Judaism.

“[My temple] told me that I should come here to get some music for my seder,” she says.

When Simon returns, he has found exactly what she needs.

Over the years, Rutberg has also served numerous celebrities, including Johnny Mathis, Steve Lawrence and Theodore Bikel. Folksy singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen once wanted some cantorial music. Bette Midler was looking for something by the Barry Sisters, citing Claire Barry as her prime influence.

“I picked up the phone,” recalls Rutberg with a sly grin, “dialed long distance and said, ‘Claire, there’s someone I want you to speak to.'”

Asked what will become of Hatikvah, Rutberg shakes his head. “I don’t know,” he says.

In recent years, he has done much of his business online at www.hatikvahmusic.com, so possibly that will continue. But the landmark store loved by so many will be a blank storefront by next month.

Rutberg believes he did his part to save rare Jewish music. “But I couldn’t save myself,” he adds, ruefully.

For more information, call (323) 655-7083.

Simon Rutberg, owner of Hatikvah Music International will be interviewed on KCRW-FM’s “The Politics of Culture” on Monday, Dec. 26, at 7 p.m.

Kirk Silsbee has been writing about music in Los Angeles — mostly jazz- — for the last 30 years.

Letters


Taps for Hatikvah

It has been sad indeed to see the slow death of all things Jewish along our Fairfax stretch over the last few years (“Fairfax Shops Feel the Squeeze,” Oct. 21).

Before we are relegated to yet another historical reference on the Canter’s mural, let’s hope the community mobilizes to at least make enough of an effort to slow down the gentrification of the area.

The latest casualty appears to be the imminent demise of the Hatikvah Music store. Hatikvah Music goes back to the ’50s. It was the only Jewish music store I knew where many aspiring pop artists entered the music business as part-time sales helpers when Fairfax High was on holiday.

Lately, it had become the only store you could visit in person to get the greatest selection of Jewish music in the West (perhaps in the whole country).

Sad, sad indeed,

Ed Marzola
Los Angeles

I am one of the artists whose CDs have been sold by Hatikvah. This is one of the few places left that specialize in the promotion of grass-roots groups like ours in a menschlikhkeit and heartfelt way.

If in fact the rent increases prohibit the existence of this wonderful shop, I question the priorities of the landowner. It is a shame to lose the most important venue left for the distribution of cultural heritage on the West Coast. I’m very sorry for this development.

Josh Horowitz
Founding Member
Veretski Pass

Inappropriate Cover

Please choose titles for The Journal that we can be proud of. Your choice of covers is often embarrassing and hurtful, and could lead to anti-Semitic responses from people. “An-Jew-Linos,” the title of the Sept. 30 paper, was not appropriate and quite offensive.

We don’t want letter carriers, postmen, store owners, patrons at the library, non-Jewish readers and anti-Semites reading disgusting titles like that. We don’t want people calling Angelenos, “An-Jew-Linos.” What were you thinking? Are you trying to create problems for our community?

Be very careful what you write on the covers of The Journal. It is seen and read by many people, not just Jewish people.

Anna Kleinman
Tarzana

Nostra Aetate

Thank you for Michael Berenbaum and Jane Ulman’s comprehensive and thoughtful coverage of the 40th anniversary of Nostra Aetate (“Nostra Aetate” and “What Happened When Jews Stopped Being Jesus’ Killers,” Oct. 21). The story of Los Angeles’ role in developing Catholic-Jewish dialogue deserves to be known more widely.

The reality is that Catholics have spent a great deal more time and effort learning about Jews and Judaism than Jews have in learning about Catholics and Catholicism, let alone Christianity in general. Our community’s conversion fears must not remain stumbling blocks to knowledge and understanding.

Leadership must come not only from organizations like the American Jewish Committee but also from our educational institutions and spiritual leaders. Here in Los Angeles, for example, Milken Community High School and the University of Judaism’s undergraduate college have made progress in teaching not only Christianity, but also Islam and Asian religions.

Still, of the major rabbinical seminaries across the United States, only Philadelphia’s Reconstructionist Rabbinical College requires a comparative religion course of its graduates — and some still don’t even offer them as electives. But every priest in formation has to study the Tanakh — in Hebrew.

It is said that he who knows one religion knows none. Ignorance of the other is no excuse.

Shawn Landres
Research Director
Synagogue 3000

Valley Cities Thriving

I read your article about the West Valley JCC with keen interest. However, your statement about Valley Cities JCC gave the impression that we are just barely existing (“Milken JCC Thrives With Dollars, Sense,” Oct. 21).

I would like to inform you that Valley Cities has a thriving Early Childhoom program, and an after-school program that services 10 public schools; an LAUSD education program two days a week; Israeli and ballroom dancing; a teen center; an exercise program for seniors; play readings, bagel brunches with excellent speakers; and a kosher kitchen.

Valley Cities JCC services the East Valley community in the same way as our companion West Valley JCC services the West Valley community. For all your readers in the East Valley, come by and partake of our services as they are there for your use and enjoyment.

Marcia Mirkin
Vice President
Friends of Valley Cities JCC

‘Painful Holidays’

At the end of her article, “The Painful Holidays” (Oct. 7), Michele Herenstein bravely writes what I’ve only thought about saying to the Jewish community. As a Jewishly involved 30-something single myself, invitations to join others for Shabbat and holiday meals are painfully few and far between.

I can’t help but feel that, all too often, the community at large and specifically the synagogue-going community easily loses sight of those of us who have not yet made our own families, just when we need them the most.

Like Herenstein, I ask the community to keep your eyes out for those of us who are single. In your planning, please consider those of us single men and women who may not have anywhere else to return to after shul, except for an empty apartment.

Ellen Kiss
Los Angeles

False Use

Constantly accusing all critics of Israel and Zionism as anti-Semitic is the false use of the race card meant to silence dissent (“Teacher Class on Mideast Stirs Doubt,” Oct. 7). Accusing organizations like the American Friends Service Committee of anti-Semitism risks isolating the Jewish community from the larger human rights discourse.

The Anti-Defamation League should stop monitoring human rights organizations and instead enter into real dialogue based on universal principles of social justice. There are well-meaning people who have serious, legitimate concerns with Israeli policy and Zionism, with no malice toward the Jewish people, these concerns stemming from a global understanding of the principles of justice and human rights that should be applied to everyone. To have a different policy toward Israel would be hypocritical and indefensible.

Your article raised concern regarding conference coordinator Linda Tubach’s affiliation with Cafe Intifada, which, as you correctly reported, supports Palestinian cultural programs, such as arts, educational, labor, community and human rights organizations, all essential parts of any dynamic democracy which Israel and its defenders claim it to be. Why then, the concern with our organization?

You incorrectly reported that Tubach no longer serves on our advisory board and that it has been disbanded. It is the pen pal program that has been discontinued, not our advisory board. We are grateful for Linda’s continued participation.

Emma Rosenthal
Executive Producer
Andy Griggs
Advisory Board Member
Cafe Intifada

Major Problem — Women

I read with interest Rob Eshman’s editorial (“The Conversation,” Oct. 21). Had I been along for the ride to Colorado, I would have said that one major problem in the Jewish community is that many women are not satisfied with their roles in Judaism.

This is most likely because they do not understand that they are not required to put on tefillin, have a quorum (minyan), wear tallisim, etc. So they use their secular-oriented mentalities and vie for opportunities to participate as men, “equal rights.”

This notion of equal opportunities is irrelevant to real Judaism. In fact, it is this lack of understanding and a lack of acceptance by more secular, assimilated Jews that gave rise to the perverse concept of women “rabbis.”

What do such women dismiss as irrelevant laws that they permit themselves to touch the Torah during times of their individual menses cycle, for example? Looking for halachic loopholes for women to carry the Torah as is done at B’nai David-Judea (Orthodox), undermines women converts to Orthodox Judaism who are satisfied with their specific obligations and do not need to vie with men for such newly created opportunities.

This is the demise of real Judaism! The advent of an era of new and perverted religions that are an offshoot of Judaism, albeit embracing many other Jewish ideals and reaching out to embrace like minds who need a religion of convenience.

Zvi-Hersch Blum
Los Angeles

‘Useful Idiot’

What do you call a “useful idiot” a whole generation later? You would think after the Venona files were released and documented that the people who were prosecuted under the “red scare” were prosecuted for what they did, not what they thought, that objections to McCarthy would wane (“Ed Murrow: What’s in a Name,” Oct. 21).

Today, the parallels are clear. If the Cold War is over and Edward Rampell is still on the wrong side, why should we trust him about the war on terror?

Janet and Albert Fuchs
via e-mail